Saturday, July 2, 2011

Rags-to-riches story

FROM earning an annual income of only A$17,000 (RM46,714) to becoming a multi-millionaire in five years is a remarkable achievement for anyone: more so if you are a Malaysian in Australia.

Maha Sinnathamby, a former civil engineer from Kuala Lumpur, has done it albeit in a somewhat roller-coaster way - he became a self-made millionaire, lost everything in a failed business venture, but rose again like a phoenix from the ashes to become even richer.

A man with a will of iron and clear vision, he set out to create a new master-planned city, a venture that has not happened before other than in Canberra.

Today, Sinnathamby, 67, has fulfilled his dream of building that city, Greater Springfield, which is 20km in radius and its CBD alone is twice the size of Queensland, the capital of Brisbane.

In fact, it will be the biggest CBD in Australia.

When fully completed by 2026, Greater Springfield will have a population of more than 85,000. And the uniqueness of the A$15bil (RM41bil) project sited on 2,853ha of bushland is that it will be a health and education city that will provide well-being services and lifelong learning to the community.

All these facilities will be on specially-selected areas and will range from childcare centres, primary and secondary schools to staff training institutes, technical colleges and universities. A total of A$450mil (RM1.23bil) will be spent on various building works this year, increasing to A$880mil (RM2.41bil) a year from 2008 to 2026.

But Sinnathamby’s journey from rags to riches is not without trepidation, anxiety, pain, suffering and anguish, as he has faced a lot of challenges and some supposedly insurmountable difficulties.

Nonetheless, he refused to concede to what was seemingly an impossible dream.

“Nothing nor anyone can stop you if you really want to succeed in life in an honest way,” he told about 200 people at an Association of Malaysians in Western Australia dinner recently at the invitation of its president Terry Lee.

“Think about it. Think about it very seriously. You really are whatever you want to be, so don’t find excuses.

“We will face major setbacks and when this happens, just pack your bags, keep moving and say to yourself ‘tomorrow is going to be better.’ Remember this, the darkest night brings the brightest dawn.”

When he was a child, Sinnathamby, who grew up in a rubber estate south of Seremban, had very basic facilities and he studied under a kerosene lamp until he finished school. He then came to Sydney to study civil engineering at the University of New South Wales.

To pay part of his university fees, he had to do all sorts of part-time work including selling second-hand cars and television sets and driving a taxi.

On graduation he returned to Malaysia and worked for some time. He then went to Indonesia before migrating to Australia in 1971.

“I was absolutely devastated when I came to Perth,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get a job. To survive in the real world, I had to sell rulers and did a bit of real estate and went on the dole at one stage.”

He then decided to work for himself by developing properties, earning only A$17,000 that year. But within five years, he made a spectacular profit of A$7mil (RM19.3mil) from developing various properties and shopping centres and a seven-storey office block.

Sinnathamby then ventured into bold projects and lost his fortune. He moved on to Queensland and within three years he made A$4mil (RM11mil).

In 1992, he had a vision to build a new city south of Brisbane and bought 2,853ha of bushland for A$7.9mil (RM21.7mil). He then focused on planning and creating the city with his planner Barry Alexander and surveyor Ian Keilar.

“The Springfield story is one of vision, passion, dedication, suffering, sleepless nights and mental agony,” he explains.

Sinnathamby cites three main factors behind the success of Greater Springfield - vision, challenges to implementing the vision and a goal to do the right thing.

“It was good to have a vision. But, in reality, the challenge was how to convince 15 government departments and the local council and other financiers and numerous other parties that this was going to be a digital edge that was going to change the entire region.

“At the same time we had to get our approvals and, as a project of this size had not been approved in the history of the nation, it had to have a validating legislation and an Act of Parliament. Eventually, all the hands of 89 members in the State Parliament went up that gave birth to a city.”

During this time, however, the property market had dried up and from 1995 to 1999, his sales rate was very poor and debts were increasing.

“We were borrowing from one financier to pay another and so on until the bankers brought in the hangman who gave us 30 days to pay up A$9.5mil (RM26mil), including interests - the only debt against a valuation of A$35mil (RM96mil).”

Finally, Sinnathamby made a deal with Delfin Corporation, which got him enough money to start the A$72mil (RM197mil) extension of the Centenary Highway.

His challenge now is to ensure that the project is carried out properly so that it will enhance the region's economy and sustainability.

Sinnathamby claims that with 3.3 families moving into the new city each day, this region is seeing an unprecedented growth in Australia. He and his family live in the city, too.

His personal asset is estimated to be A$405mil (RM1.1bil) now - making him probably one of the richest, if not the richest, Malaysian in Australia.

In recognition of his contribution to Queensland, the state government named the main four-lane access road into Greater Springfield Sinnathamby Boulevard.



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